The Difficulty for a Developmental Football League
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The Alliance of American Football made a positive first impression with many viewers over the weekend, actually outpacing the top NBA game from a ratings standpoint and further exemplifying what we should already know: football is king when it comes to sports and American society.
As for the long-term success for a minor league on a major broadcast station, early polling results are just that and an indication of not much more than a willingness to give a new product an opportunity.
To shifting of the television landscape as a whole over the last two decades favors a niche audience. The AAF's debut rating, which was correctly labeled as a success by all, was about 20 percent of the original XFL's debut back in 2001, which turned into a massive failure due to shoddy play and an over-the-top presentation from pro wrestling impresario Vince McMahon.
When it comes to the AAF, you can forget about the latter issue. Both Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian are serious about the game and creating essentially a developmental league which allows players on the fringes to continue to chase their dreams.
History, however, says the only way a minor league is going to succeed is with a subsidy from the big dog with the best evidence of that being Major League Baseball's minor-league affiliates and the G-League over in the NBA, products you don't see on CBS.
As for the AAF, some spun the first impression as surprisingly good but plenty of others correctly pointed to the poor offense, stemming from questionable quarterback play coupled with a dearth of capable offensive linemen.
Anyone who has watched the NFL over the past five seasons or so understands that there aren’t enough good quarterbacks or O-linemen for the $15 billion behemoth so the realization that the first three AAF games generated three TD passes and 12 interceptions, a disastrous 1:4 ratio should not have been a surprise.
More so, that will quickly grow tiresome to a fan base that has been indoctrinated to believe offense is everything in the modern NFL.
The AAF seems to understand all of this, however, and is positioning itself as a developmental league best evidenced by the standard contract for all players, a three-year, $250,000 deal which climbs from $70,000 to $80K and then $100K in 2021 but allows anyone to leave for the NFL after the season. The schedule is also put together with the NFL in mind with the regular season concluding on April 14, the day before most NFL teams begin their offseason work.
Common sense says there is room to work with here because most coaches understand the best way to get better is live repetitions and the current NFL CBA just doesn't allow enough of that.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the old Word League [NFL Europe] was the aiding in the development of signal callers like Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson and Jake Delhomme, all who ultimately reached the Super Bowl and in Warner's case, the Hall of Fame.
There is a hurdle, however, and it was highlighted by Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland last season when discussing Jordan Mailata, the raw Aussie left tackle who is tailor-made for a developmental system.
Stoutland acknowledged what additional playing time can mean for a raw player like Mailata.
"If I was a player and I wasn’t on an active roster, absolutely jump in and play as much as you can play," Stoutland assessed. "Especially if you’re a guy who’s changed from the defensive line to the offensive line or are learning a new position. The more reps you get, I call them bars of gold. The more you play the more acclimated you become. Just ask Jordan Mailata. That’s what he’s going through right now."
The caveat, though, is what hits the AAF hardest.
Stoutland doesn't want other chefs in his kitchen, meaning the vast majority of players in the AAF and the XFL in 2020 will be unaffiliated.
"I want to be able to teach players what we’re doing and have my hands on them," Stoutland said. "... The guys that we have, I want to be able to have them here, coaching them on our technique and our scheme and what we’re trying to get done."
And unafilliated means the AAF will ultimately sink or swim on its own ability to generate revenue.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen